You might have noticed that the volume of public/media conversations about sexual predators has been increasing in the past couple of weeks. I have some comments to make about this.
As a woman working in a conservative, male-dominated field for nearly two decades, I experienced sexual harassment in all of its overt as well as subtle forms. I fended off most harassers with the direct approach: touch me again or speak to me like that again and I’ll hand your balls back to you on a platter. I had no problems speaking up and went to supervisors and mentors on several occasions when the direct approach was not effective. I was never dismissed or ignored. I had no idea how lucky I was.
I never encountered the more destructive and insidious “Weinstein” style of harassment until last year. Not surprisingly, it was within an academic setting. The academy is as notorious as the entertainment industry for its poor treatment of women. I could single out STEM fields but there are predators in every discipline, not just the sciences.
I first encountered this particular predator via the “whisper network.” Third- and fourth-year vet students would quietly tell the freshman and sophomore students to keep an eye on this guy. He would stand too close. He would say inappropriate things. He would try to touch you. It wasn’t possible to avoid him entirely since he taught a required course for second-year vet students. He’d been doing these things, and much worse, for decades, but few students were willing to jeopardize their grades and degrees by speaking up. While they certainly knew about this, deans and university administrators can’t act on rumors. And although I think one of the charms of the academy is that tenure can shelter eccentricity, the very dark flip side is that tenure can protect predators.
I was on high alert whenever this predator was in my vicinity, but I was not expecting any interaction with him. I was not his type at all. He is taller than average and I watched him repeatedly use his height to physically dominate smaller female students. That’s what his kind of predation is all about: exploitation of power differentials and domination.
However, to my surprise, he did actually say something to me that was so inappropriate, so shocking, that I went straight to the dean’s office and reported it. I don't view myself as a hero or a warrior. I reported it because I was mad as hell that this kind of gross behavior occurred in my vicinity. I was mad as hell that this fucker had been getting away with this for years. I was mad as hell to think that he could target other classmates, some of whom I’m rather fond of.
The dean did not ignore me or dismiss me. Phone calls were made. Additional meetings were held with other university administrators. I felt like I had been listened to.
As it turned out, I was not only listened to but things begin to happen. At the end of the summer, I was asked to testify before a faculty panel convened by the university president to evaluate the many accusations that had been accumulating around this predator for years and to determine whether he should have his tenure revoked. I was a witness for the outside counsel hired by the university to represent their interests in the matter. Not everyone involved was willing to appear in person, because there was questioning and cross-examination. I totally understand that. First you are afraid that, if you speak up, you will not get approved for a grant, will not pass a class, will not be able to advance in your academic career. Then you are told, we want you to face this fucker and his rude lawyer in a small, stuffy room crammed with people you don’t know and tell your story. That is just too much for most people. However, I am not so easily intimidated. This is not always a good character trait to have, believe me.
The final outcome is still pending. But I know that I did the right thing by speaking up. The predator has been removed from all duties involving teaching and supervision of students. It’s just a matter of time.